Hubert Fichte (1935–1986) was a German writer and ethnologist whose work oscillates between subjective-poetic (self-)observation and scientific description of his objects of study, between Queer Studies and Postcolonial Studies. Born in Perleberg in 1935, the son of a German-Jewish couple, Fichte grew up mostly in Hamburg. His experiences during the Second World War, as part of the children’s evacuations to Bavaria and Silesia, and the discrimination he faced as “Halbjude,” according to the Nuremberg race laws during the Third Reich, can be traced throughout his work.

Fichte’s early encounter with the photographer Leonore Mau (1916–2013), whom he met in 1950 while studying drama and performing at the Hamburg Theater im Zimmer, was of central importance to Fichte’s work. From this friendship emerged a lifelong relationship, both professional and personal, in which the two pursued a unified project, from the 1960s until the 1980s: to observe, write, and photograph and forge new approaches to ethnology. The two conducted research in countries as far afield as Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Haiti, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Trinidad, and the Dominican Republic. In addition to his own anthropological publications and “ethno-poetic” works such as Xango (1976) and Petersilie (Parsley, 1980), Fichte published a number of photographic collections together with Mau.

Fichte, a member of Gruppe 47, was an author with highly diverse interests: from his origins in the early 1960s as a successful pop/avant-garde writer, having come of age in post-fascist Germany as a bisexual man, proceeded to refine an ethnology of his own culture, which manifested itself in texts such as Wolli Indienfahrer (1979/1983), also known as “the Sankt-Pauli interviews“. Fichte loved African and Afro-diasporic cultures, and, starting in the 1960s, shifted his research interests toward these and other non-European cultures.

For Fichte, the challenge of modern ethnology was to overcome the colonial essence of established forms of knowledge in anthropology and ethnology, as well as their supposed anti-racists politics, which on occasion pushed him to the limits of his own work and his access to his own research subjects. Because: Fichte as ethnologist never located an unambiguous method, or even a reliable perspective, which he sought with great intensity in both his observations and his writing. In a number of the novels, essay collections, and radio features which comprise Fichte’s planned 24-volume life’s work, Die Geschichte der Empfindlichkeit (The History of Sensitivity), he seems to despair at maintaining his stance between that of the highly subjective author and the patient scientist, between the position of political journalist and remorseless observer of his own self.

Fichte’s work, and in particular his unfinished Geschichte der Empfindlichkeit, represents a new and as yet internationally little known avenue for anthropology, in which the author’s research gradually is transformed, markedly distinguishing itself from the West German discourse of the time: Even as the descriptions of hunger and poverty in the so-called “third world” countries that Fichte and Mau visited, which was his first field of interest, the point of view was soon directed at forms of non-violent resistance, the expansion of tourism, especially sex tourism, psychiatry in West Africa, and African and Afro-diasporic religions throughout the Black Atlantic, such as Brazilian Candomblé.

Fichte’s experimental prose is based on his ethnographic, journalistic, poetic, and dialogic devices. It is lapidary, matter-of-fact, and relentless, almost overpowering, musical, and comic. The author lets the reader take part in his doubts and feelings of hopelessness with regard to his methodological approaches. Fichte saw how accepting cultic and cultural practices as art could serve as example and vector, a way of decolonizing his own position as white ethnologist and writer. Fichte, who died in Hamburg in 1986, was one of the first to make connections between the avant-garde currents of his time like minimalism, Fluxus, and Happenings, and to introduce from them a new comprehension of ethnology, in which he considered their artistic dimensions against aesthetic criteria.

Fichte’s work has been the subject of intense research in the German-language world since the 1990s and 2000s. However, until now, a similar reception in those countries where he and Mau traveled extensively has been lacking. Hubert Fichte: Love and Ethnology, a cooperation between Goethe-Institut and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, with the support of the S. Fischer Stiftung and the S. Fischer Verlag, will offer, through multiple exhibits and prose translations, new possibilities for the reception of and engagement with Fichte’s work in the countries where he conducted his research.